Ice and amphetamine seized by Thai Police (Photo courtesy of Royal Thai Police)

Ice and amphetamine seized by Thai Police (Photo courtesy of Royal Thai Police)

The deadly war against drugs in the Philippines has echoes of what happened in Thailand in the early 2000s – massive arrests and a wave of extrajudicial killings.

But more than a decade on, Thailand is changing course. 

With one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and with 70 percent of inmates in jail for drugs, policymakers have been forced to rethink.

Kannikar Petchkaew has this report.

Winai, which is not his real name, started taking amphetamines, when he was just twelve years old.

Weeks later, he was buying and selling pills too.

“I was addicted to them from my first go. It felt good, taking the drug and also making money from selling. I bought each pill for 30 baht [about 80 US cents] and then sold them for 80 [$2.30] so I made a small fortune each time,” Winai revealed.

Winai dropped out of school, and spent the next fifteen years dealing drugs and doing petty crime. In 2005 he was arrested and charged with attempted murder, theft and drug use. 

He was sentenced to 12 years in jail, but later served only four years on account of good behavior.

Yet when Winai was released he got straight back into drugs, becoming a dealer.

“We would always find our old circles inside. The big dealers or the big bosses. We would learn all the bad things from them and promised them that once we were out we could run to their wives, take the drugs and be a mule for them. Mostly it turned out that way,” said Winai.

In 2003, with an escalating number of high-profile drug cases, the Thai government declared a war on drugs.

Police were given a license to use “extreme measures” to curb the sale of narcotics, such as ecstasy and methamphetamines.

The three-month reign of police terror left at least 2,000 people dead. 

But Winai says he was too young and too intoxicated to be afraid.

That’s Paiboon Koomchaya, an army general and the Minister of Justice in Thailand’s current military cabinet. 

For him, the harsh crackdown was a total failure. 

“Massive arrests and harsh punishment, it just lead to a massive loss of lives. And now every country faces the same problem: overcrowded jails,” Koomchaya said. 

The number of inmates jailed for drug convictions has almost doubled over the past decade.

Thailand now has the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the world according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, with a prison population of more than 300 thousand.

And seventy percent of them are on the inside because of drugs.

Koomchaya says the country’s proposed new narcotic law will help shift the focus toward rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. 

“To deal with them we will focus on their rights to access proper healthcare services and the right to be cured. The right to access proper medication to help them stop taking drugs,” says Koomchaya.

But Koomchaya made clear that doesn’t mean that Thailand is going soft on drugs.

“Big time drug dealers will face harsh penalties. We insist the death penalty will still be in use as the highest form of penalty. Even as we soften the drug policy, we will still have the death penalty,” Koomchaya affirmed.

Former user and dealer, Winai says he has been clean for three years now, since his daughter was born. He lives with his wife in northern Thailand and runs a food stall. 

Winai says the new approach, rehab rather than jail, could really help. Going to jail, spending time with other criminals and dealers doesn’t work, he says.

“When faced with the same friends, the same environment there will be the same problem, they will be lulled back into it again and again.”

The law is scheduled to be passed later this year but there are big challenges ahead. There are only a limited number of rehabilitation centers across the country, although the government does plan to build four more.

And that’s before you even start talking about the infamous Golden Triangle area, a huge drug production hub in the hills of the border area of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

According to Koomchaya, “We need to seal off the Golden Triangle. Without that we can’t solve this problem. We need to destroy these drug production sites.”

As decades of harsh policy have failed, only time will tell if Thailand’s new approach can work. 

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